A Report From Porto Alegre

A Report From Porto Alegre

Optimism and antiwar fervor were both in evidence at the World Social Forum.


At roughly the same hour on January 27 that Hans Blix was handing over his weapons inspection report to the United Nations, something like 15,000 people braved the stifling Southern Hemisphere summer heat here to pack the local Gigantinho indoor stadium to the rafters. Unfurling a sea of flags and banners, the crowd sweatily engaged in what had to be one of the most high-spirited peace rallies in recent times–replete with a series of rolling, rollicking audience “waves” ordinarily seen only at sporting events.

Indian novelist Arundhati Roy and MIT Professor Noam Chomsky, sitting in front of a banner reading Bush, Powell, Cheney = Axis of Liars, further amped up the crowd with a back-to-back pair of incendiary speeches thrashing the Bush Administration and in particular its war buildup against Iraq. “The most powerful state in the world has announced its intentions to rule the world by force,” Chomsky said. “And while this doctrine is not new, it has never before been expressed with such brazen arrogance.” As night began to fall, the charged-up crowd poured out of the stadium and joined an equal number of demonstrators already waiting in the streets, and together they spent another two hours marching and protesting against the proposed Free Trade Area of the Americas.

The double-header demonstration–against war and against corporate globalization–was a fitting finale to this year’s World Social Forum. The WSF was established in this city three years ago primarily by French and Latin American activists to run concurrently with, and serve as a sort of “people’s” alternative to, the elite World Economic Forum held in Davos, Switzerland. While it’s impossible to summarize this year’s WSF, which drew more than 100,000 participants from dozens of countries and offered a kaleidoscopic array of 1,472 roundtables, lectures, seminars and workshops spread out among four venues over five days and nights, one firm conclusion is that the gathering accelerated and formalized the coupling of the emerging peace movement and the already established anti-corporate globalization movement. “This was imperative and natural,” says João Pedro Stedile, a leader of Brazil’s Landless Workers Movement and a member of the WSF organizing committee. “When capitalism enters into crisis it always recurs to war.”

The dark clouds of conflict in Iraq shaded out any debate over the merger. Indeed, a number of key activists see the impending Bush Administration war with Iraq as a threat to much other crucial political work and therefore place a high priority on trying to stop it. “We have to be careful if there is war,” said Malaysian economist Martin Khor of the Third World Network, one of the top strategists in the global justice movement. “So much energy would be lost in following the war and in resisting it. It could shift attention away from what is happening in the World Trade Organization, and then you will find that the United States and Europe will be able to bully other governments into agreeing on other issues.”

Despite these very real worries, this year’s WSF seemed to float on a cushion of optimistic ether. Participation was twice what it was last year and five or six times greater than when the WSF debuted, in 2001. The contrasting malaise at the corporatist Davos conference did not go unnoticed. (With CEOs doing public perp walks, the stock market still tanking and the US economy still stalled, it was no accident that the theme of this year’s Davos gathering was “trust.”) Just forty-eight hours after Brazil’s newly inaugurated socialist President Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva gave an emotional address to tens of thousands here, he flew to Davos and brought the same plea for the poor directly to the world economic elite. “We started off as the anti-Davos,” said a beaming Candido Grzybowski of the WSF organizing committee. “And now, three years later, Davos has had to become the anti-World Social Forum.”

Further, there was a palpable sense that–at least in this hemisphere–some sort of tectonic shift was under way and that the free-market orthodoxy of the past two decades was crumbling. The proof was all around: the collapse of the Argentine neoliberal economic model, the fall of Peru’s Alberto Fujimori, the problematic but populist President Chávez in Venezuela, the rise of a formidable political left in Bolivia, the election of a reformist president in Ecuador and, last but not least, the earthshaking political events here in Brazil. Lula’s landslide election in this, Latin America’s biggest country and the world’s ninth-biggest economy, could only be taken as very, very good news for a movement searching for alternatives to corporate globalization. “The Washington Consensus has been defeated,” says José Dirceu, Lula’s chief of staff, referring to this new trend in continental politics. “It has been defeated because it has lost its legitimacy.”

Against this backdrop, delegates and participants dived into debates and discussions organized into five major areas: democratic and sustainable development; human rights, diversity and equality; media and culture; political power and civil society; and war, peace and the world democratic order. But the central debate could be boiled down to one question: To what degree should social movements confront or withdraw from the current global financial, trade and political structures, and to what degree should they engage and try to reform them?

That is a big question, said French academic and author Patrick Viveret, because we are currently confronted “not with just a crisis of capitalism, but a crisis of civilization.” One of the more extreme views came from Ugandan economist Yashpal Tandon, who argued in one of the better-attended strategy debates that the world’s leading financial institutions, like the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, are so hopelessly in the grip of what he called the “American-Anglo…Bush-Blair empire” that it is futile to attempt reform. “The only viable strategy, at least for a place like Africa,” he said, “is to disassociate ourselves from them, withdraw from them.” Tandon was vigorously rebutted by Lula adviser Dirceu, who seemed to voice the prevailing sentiment by arguing that it is impossible to reverse or ignore the forces of globalization. Rather, he said, they should be reshaped. “We can’t turn back the wheel of history,” Dirceu added. “But we can turn it a different way.” In proposing what might be called the left wing of the possible, Dirceu outlined a vision in which countries like Brazil could lead strong regional blocks within the globalized economy, fighting for more equitable rules and relationships.

Just exactly “who rules and under what rules our world is ruled,” says Lori Wallach of Public Citizen, is precisely what is at stake in the two most important proposals for mobilization and action to come out of this year’s World Social Forum. This coming September, Cancún, Mexico, will be the site of the next ministerial meeting of the World Trade Organization, and two months later Miami will host the ministerial confab on implementation of the Bush Administration’s proposed hemispheric-wide trade pact, the Free Trade Area of the Americas. Both meetings are being targeted by global justice campaigners as venues for Seattle-like demonstrations–and more.

The WTO is currently considering three initiatives that would further bolster the strength of multinational corporations and further skew global trading power in favor of the rich Northern countries. The new agreements would focus on agriculture, services and local industries. The FTAA–at least as currently conceived–would also open up weaker Latin American economies to absorption by the multinationals. Meanwhile, boosted by the new Brazilian government’s stated intention to resist the current shape of the FTAA, activists are hoping to crank up opposition to the agreement in Mexico and in the United States itself. “It’s on issues like this that the World Social Forum is most useful,” says Wallach. “Not because of the public debates. They’re OK. But more important is the ability to spend three or four long days huddled together with allies and partners from around the world, allowing us time to do some real planning, real strategizing, real movement building.”

Some of this year’s strategizing also involved the building of strong national movements in key countries like India, Malaysia, Nigeria, Thailand, Canada and Brazil in an attempt to strengthen the negotiating resolve of the global South. Dozens of groups and movements folded into the Our World is Not for Sale Network will lobby trade delegations in Geneva between now and the September Cancún ministerial meeting to oppose the expansion of the WTO and implementation of the FTAA. Brazil’s new government could be a key player in the battles along the road to Cancún and Miami, perhaps assuming the role of spokesman for the poorer countries. “Brazil is it when it comes to the FTAA,” Wallach says. “It has the economic power, the president and the social movement needed to wage the fight.” The Brazilian position is clear: Lula will be happy to negotiate the FTAA with the United States, but will not sign it unless it is altered to make terms more favorable to Brazil and the rest of Latin America.

Just how successful the fights around Cancún and Miami will be later this year depends to a significant degree on the state of the movement in the United States. One hopeful sign is the swollen size of this year’s US delegation: Last year it was about 450; this year it was three times bigger. Lots of antiwar activists made the trek, as did leftist thinkers from Chomsky to author Barbara Ehrenreich. The Washington, DC-based 50 Years Is Enough network, along with Jobs With Justice, helped bring down a hundred grassroots American activists, especially young trade unionists. “We tried hard to bring in a lot of people this year from places like Kentucky and Tennessee,” said Soren Ambrose from 50 Years, here for the third year.

Also present for the second year in a row was the AFL-CIO, represented by executive vice president Linda Chavez-Thompson. Federation leader John Sweeney was on the agenda but never made it. His substitute, Stanley Gacek, was an instant star, however. An assistant director of the AFL’s international department, Gacek, speaking in near-perfect Portuguese, brought rousing cheers from his audience as he blasted the FTAA, praised Lula, promised that US labor would fight protectionism in all new trade agreements and vowed, in the name of the federation, “a full mobilization against George W. Bush.” You knew you weren’t listening to your father’s AFL-CIO when Gacek ended his speech by quoting from the lyrics of the “Internationale.” “We will be all,” he said. “We will be all only with international solidarity.”

In describing the goals of the World Social Forum, Ignacio Ramonet, one of its chief organizers and director of Le Monde diplomatique, says they have “shifted from protesting to proposing.” The mission of the first and second forums, he said, “was to expose the vampires of Davos and their system to sunlight.” Now, he said, it is time to move to the next phase, “to not just be against, but to be in favor of something.” What that something is, frankly, remains quite elusive. While great lip service was paid to the notion of a substantive proposal, there was far too little of it, apart from the well-defined ongoing campaigns against the WTO and FTAA. Instead, there was a surfeit of denunciation, an excess of outrage and a constant shortage of remedies. One set of roundtables organized by Americans, for example, was billed as “Life After Capitalism” but dealt neither with the New Society nor with how you get there, instead remaining rutted in decrying the present.

As one remedy, forum organizers are moving next year’s gathering to India (though WSF 2005 will come back to Porto Alegre). The move to Asia, to the “deeper” Third World, some argue, will broaden both the participation and the focus. But others worry that by moving it out of Brazil–even for a year–it will become untethered from real-world politics and degenerate into a sectarian debating society. These critics argue that the strong influence that the pragmatic and now victorious Brazilian Workers’ Party exercises over the Porto Alegre conferences provides much-needed ballast.

The lack of proposals and solutions is nobody’s fault in particular, but more a product of our times. The evaporation of the cold war, the collapse of the Stalinist universe, the fading of European social democracy and the inability of neoliberal capitalism to provide growth and overcome poverty tell us that another world is not only possible but imperative; we just don’t know yet what it looks like. “The answer resides in socialism,” says liberation theologian Frei Betto, a close Lula adviser. “Not the socialism of the Berlin wall, but socialism in the sense of putting everything social over everything economic.”

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